Ever since Summer 2013 where I finally stepped out of Shanghai, I had made a mental note to myself that I would visit a new place every trip back to the hometown. In Winter 2016, I visited the Tongli Ancient Water Town in Suzhou for a day trip out of Shanghai. To give you a general idea, Shanghai is surrounded by waters, so there are many ancient water towns in the vicinity that you could choose to visit, and Tongli is just one of the six choices south of the Yangtze River along with Xitang, Wuzhen, Zhouzhuang, Yongzhi, and Nanxun.
Why Tongli then? It was really out of ambitious planning, as we had also planned to head to Suzhou City within the same day given its distance. Tongli, a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site, was recommended as being picturesque and less touristy (which happens to be true when we were there) among the many options, and hence the decision. On other days, we also had Wuxi and Hangzhou day trips included in the itinerary, which are all places that has rivers and lakes as their major attractions.
Given the close proximity of Suzhou from Shanghai, you can safely opt to purchase your tickets on the day per se. It’ll still be good to check out the high speed rail timings beforehand so you could plan your journey better, but it’s definitely okay to purchase your tickets from the counter on the day of travel.
The train journey from Shanghai to Suzhou is a quick half an hour, which is really convenient. You may pack your breakfast beforehand and eat on the train during the journey.
Once you’ve reached Suzhou station, it’s highly likely that random passers-by would approach you and recommend tours around Suzhou per se. Politely decline and move on to the bus ticket building (separate from the railway station, just adjacent to it) to purchase the bus tickets. You may also purchase the Tongli entrance tickets at the same time, and that should save you about 20RMB each. The bus ride would take about 30 – 40min.
And you’re almost there! Once you alight from the bus, take a 15 – 20 min walk to the entrance of Tongli Ancient Water Town. You should be greeted by this view (the main image is its sunset view):
WHAT TO EXPECT
Let me put this up front: there are no exceptional landmarks and great food you need to try when you’re here. What’s actually charming about this place is the picturesque canals, the quaint little shops, and a little peek into the locals’ lives (those who live within a ticketed town). The many bridges (look out for Three Bridges) and ancient garden houses are what make you stop and snap continuously. In Summer, it’s going to be more crowded, and where the boat rides are available for touring – almost like Venice of the East.
Food wise, they do have some Tongli street snacks – Wa Di Su 袜底酥 and Tui Si Bing 退思饼 – but I have to say they’re nothing fantastic, but worth a try for those who aren’t familiar with the different types of Chinese biscuits. One thing that stands out: Scholar’s Braised Pork Leg (Zhuang Yuan Ti 状元蹄), which was assumed to be a delicacy eaten (and could only be afforded) by scholars in the past.
I still did enjoy myself at this water town nonetheless. It’s perfect for wandering, especially if you’re alone. You can just walk wherever with curious eyes, and you wouldn’t have to bother about the “attractions” you can’t miss, and just enjoy the little surprises that comes along.
Time required: 5 – 6 hours
Do remember to check your last bus out of Tongli to Suzhou Station if you’re doing a day trip. Our bus service during Winter (Dec) ends around 6pm so make sure you leave on time!